Ahead of its West End transfer in a couple of weeks, the Theatre Royal Bath production of Blithe Spirit stopped in Richmond as part of a UK-wide tour. Noel Coward’s beloved and endlessly revived comedy – here presented in traditional 1930/40s stylings – comes on the back of a plea for modernity when the Old Vic presented a sensational pseudo-period and morally up-to-date version of Present Laughter with a sexually-fluid hero who made Coward’s work feel fresh and ever adaptable. Blithe Spirit, by contrast, is far more wedded to its original setting and while the louche lifestyle of Charles Condomine and the context of inter-war spiritualism is confining, Coward’s knowledge of human behaviour remains as sharp as ever.
With famous faces from Margaret Rutherford to Alison Steadman and Angela Lansbury in the most recent West End production, the role of the dark arts in Blithe Spirit has always been the focus for directors, bolstered by a scene-stealing performance from whoever plays the central comic role of Madame Arcarti. The seance section in Act One and later attempts to rid the Condomine house of its unwelcome presence are hilarious highlights that are so often the key selling point of any production. But Madame Arcarti appears in far less of the play than you might remember, so in between the exasperated novelist Charles, his increasingly brittle second wife Ruth and the glamorous, ghostly Elvira who was the first Mrs Condomine engage in plenty of waspish high jinks of their own.
Director Richard Eyre has understood this brilliantly, and while Madame Arcarti receives her due, this production knows that Blithe Spirit is really about the effects of marital discord. What is often interpreted as playful banter between Charles and Ruth here becomes much more serious, framing the play from its earliest moments with the picture of a couple whose relationship is disintegrating, bickering endlessly and surely heading for the divorce courts before too long anyway. And suddenly, the psychology of the play snaps more convincingly into place – why are we encouraged to suppose that Charles summoned Elvira’s return, why does he feel a fleeting attraction to her as they fondly reminisce about the good old days, and why is he so casually unperturbed by the pre-interval revelation? Maybe because his marriage is already in decline, well passed the first flush as both he and Ruth admit, settling into indifference and increasingly violent arguments.
And this gender battle is taking place across Anthony Ward’s set which is filled with subtle messages of relationship disquiet. The structure of the living room is itself rather masculine, a stone and timber manor house with grand arches above the thick wooden doors, a beautiful spiral staircase and mezzanine level with shelves of books that reflect the grand intellectualism of its novelist owner. Most pointedly a Victorian boxing print sits above the piano where a man with fists raised looks ready for a skirmish – very much the final position that Charles takes as the fallout from the Medium’s mishap plagues his serenity. The soft-furnishings also betray a clash of taste with the sofa and armchair covered in stripes and other Middle Eastern and Oriental patterns that suggest a well-traveled man, over the top of which Ruth has added a floral throw and positioned pots of flowers as though actively imprinting herself on a room she cannot truly belong to. These are expressive and meaningful choices in a production that is full of wonderfully small moments that sit below the overtly silly drivers that Coward has designed so well.
By repositioning Charles and Ruth’s marriage at the heart of this approach to Blithe Spirit, and later that of Charles and Elvira, Eyre creates a production that both builds to a fever pitch of absurdity but also paints a broader picture of the characters’ lives and the context that brought them to this impasse. There are several strands that bubble under the surface, showcased so well in the first scene by Ruth’s thinly veiled impatience with her tiresome neighbours the Bradmans, forced to entertain them to support her husband’s book research. It becomes abundantly clear that the limitations of the Condomine’s social life in semi-rural Kent has long since begun to grate, and there a number of occasions where Ruth mimes along behind the backs of others as over-familiarity and outright boredom at having heard the same stories many time break through her polite middle-class hostess poise.
The advantage of a Company that has been together since last summer and on tour for some weeks is the ease of interaction where these added details flesh-out the comfortable community relationship the actors have created onstage. Throughout there are many of these visual or physical comedy additions where, outside the prescriptions of Coward’s text, looks of confederacy and annoyance are amusingly exchanged. Madame Arcartis often take the opportunity to create further flourishes in her elaborate seance technique and whether she ends up with legs askance on the sofa or sneezing at the too liberal sprinkling of pepper used in one of her spiritual interventions, this production fully utilises every opportunity to make the audience laugh.
But, there is also something a little more sinister in Eyre’s vision for Blithe Spirit removing this a little from the light comedy of old; not only is the growing bitterness of the Condomine marriage barely concealed, but there is also a touch of horror lurking within the overall tone, enough to make the reappearance of Elvira just a little creepy, a decision which reaches its full potential in a very dark conclusion. Borrowing from The Exorcist, the final seance and its consequences may send you home more than a little disturbed.
Yet Eyre – and arguably Coward – save their most disturbing revelation for the very end of the night as Charles reveals a more uncomfortable side to his character with the force of his final ravings revealing quite a different man from the one we had spent the evening with. Controlling and coercive behaviour are implied along with betrayals and a vengefulness that is shocking in its fury. By degrees, then, Eyre turns what is so often a fluffy souffle of a show with twinkly supernatural leanings into a more grounded portrait of broken relationships and retribution, all without losing the farcical froth that makes this a much-loved classic, which is a welcome achievement.
For many, it is Madame Arcarti they come to see and Jennifer Saunders’s performance will not disappoint. Most recent interpretations have lent towards the elaborate spiritualist with sweeping cloak, turban and plenty of beads, but Saunders takes her characterisation closer to (yet still distinct from) Margaret Rutherford. Playing a little older, this Madame Arcarti is a much more ordinary woman, a kind of batty and disheveled Miss Marple-type in tweed skirts and worn woolly cardigans. There is something a bit jolly-hockeysticks about her as she uses the particular phraseology of girls’ public schools that so irritates Ruth, slightly eccentric but well-meaning and more recognisably part of normal village-life.
And Saunders treads a very fine line in the level of exaggeration she allows her character to display, giving what is actually a tightly-controlled comic performance that rarely tips over into the incredulous. Even her most exuberant moments as she falls into trances with plenty of silly voices and extreme gesticulation, or her schoolgirlish excitement at learning she has conjured a spirit are just enough, staying within the parameters of the character Saunders has created. That is not to say she doesn’t have a lot of fun with the role, adding wonderful facial expressions and a wide physical stance, not to mention some excessively furry eyebrows, but this Madame Arcarti is far less bohemian and wispy than some, taking herself and her craft with an almost scientific seriousness, much to Charles’s and our amusement.
There are few actors who could be better cast as Charles Condomine that Geoffrey Streatfeild in a role that really carries the piece and from whose point of view Coward largely writes. Suave cads and bounders are rather a forte for Streatfeild whose most recent work in Cellmates, The Way of the World and the The Beaux’ Stratagem offered plenty of variation on the well-to-do rogue. Streatfeild’s performance carefully shows how the wives were blindsided by Charles’s appearance of charm by doing exactly the same to the audience. In the first scene, we are taken in by his easy appeal, a delightful host actively taking notes on the evening while suffering from the effects of a manifestation no one will believe.
But slowly, Streatfeild alters our perspective as we discover more about his marriages to reveal a man whose argumentative nature and varied adulteries, including a refreshed flirtation with his dead wife, are part of wider forms of noxious behaviour and entitlement. Charles’s ability to play the “wounded spaniel” is just that, playing and when he loses his temper at the end of the story his true feelings are revealed as vitriol pours forth and a petty and more spiteful creature emerges in Streatfeild’s interesting and layered performance.
Maintaining this fascination with surface politeness and the mask of true feeling, Lisa Dillon makes Ruth a far more intriguing proposition. Often presented as the play’s “grown-up” in a straight-woman role around which the chaos turns, Dillon grasps plenty of comic limelight for herself in a hilarious presentation of a woman already reaching the end of her tether long before the ghostly goings-on begin. Under an ever thinning veil of politeness, Dillon’s Ruth jollies along through gritted teeth as her buttoned-up second wife starts to boil over, no longer able to contain her contempt for her silly neighbours and a disappointing husband.
Rose Wardlaw makes the most of trainee maid Edith who careers about the house, given a little more to do by Eyre to add some more of those extra physical humour details that define this production. Emma Naomi’s Elvira however is a little flat, and while she enjoys pouring oil on the troubled waters of the Condomine marriage, despite her chic costume, doesn’t quite find enough allure in the role.
It may take Madame Arcarti’s trance to set the events of this play in motion but the spiritual ructions she unleashes seem minor in comparison to the marital mayhem of the Condomines. Opening at the Duke of York’s Theatre on 5 March for only 6 weeks, Richard Eyre’s production of Blithe Spirit may lack the fizz of Matthew Warchus’s freeing approach to Present Laughter, but it nonetheless showcases the ongoing relevance of Coward’s insight into complicated human relationships and, without the help of a muddled Medium, the mess that people created for themselves.